Parashat Hukkat

Water Consciousness

How to send environmental problems down the drain.

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This week's Torah portion, Hukkat, can be viewed as a narrative about the Jewish people and water. Water--in Hebrew, mayim--is mentioned 22 times. The portion begins with God's command to mix water with the ashes of a red cow for purification. Next, Miriam dies, and the well which provided the Israelites with water disappears. The Jewish people quarrel with Moses, complaining (Numbers 20:3), "There is no water to drink!" Moses and Aaron strike the rock and God brings forth water.

Next, Moses asks the Edomites to pass through their land, with a promise not to drink their water, or alternately, to buy it from them. Then the Jewish people travel by way of the Sea of Reeds--where God had split the sea for them--and on their desert journey complain again about lacking water. They arrive in modern-day Jordan and sing an exultant song about their appreciation to God for water. Finally, the Torah portion ends with them encamped on the eastern bank of the Jordan River.

Learning to be Appreciative

What is God teaching us through the Torah's water narrative? The Jews' experiences with water in the desert can be understood as a spiritual training to cultivate appreciation for God's goodness. God takes the essential, tangible resource of water and gives it to us in environments where we do not have it.

We learn to appreciate water and to know Who really provides it through the process described here of taking water for granted, losing it, and then being given it by God. In an ultimate sense, water does not nourish us. God does. Water is one of the chief means by which God provides life to us every day. The see-saw experience of having water and then losing it is the means to develop the spiritual muscles of appreciating God.

Yet, always being on the positive side of having water leads a person to take it for granted. Today, piped water is incredibly convenient; it relieves us from carrying our water from streams and cisterns to our homes. Today, people in the West tend to lack an appreciation of where water comes from, and they end up wasting and polluting it. Where appreciation ends, misuse begins.

Abuses Abound

This explains how much of the western and southeastern United States could experience water scarcity and need government agencies to call for conservation.  Or how we could lose sight of how much energy goes into bringing every gallon to our faucet. In many areas of the United States and the world, electricity-producing generators power pumps that raise water hundreds or even over a thousand feet from the underground aquifer to the water tanks at the top of local mountain ranges, so that gravity can then take it to our homes.

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Jonathan Neril

Jonathan Neril is the project manager of the Jewish Environmental Parsha Initiative. He is a rabbinical student in his fourth year of Jewish learning in Israel. He received an MA and BA at Stanford with a focus on global environmental issues.